Since the 14th century, the first Sunday after Pentecost has been celebrated in the Western Church as “Trinity Sunday,” presumably with the hope that one of these years we’ll figure it out.
I’m kidding, but one of the ironies of the Trinity is that this doctrine meant to clarify the unity of the Godhead really serves to unify the church in making jokes about its incomprehensibility.
Of course, the Trinity hasn’t always been a joking matter — far from it, in fact. Probably no other doctrine in the church has led to more councils and commissions, leading to more excommunications and even executions. It goes without saying that certain events in this contentious and at times violent history around the Trinity are disgraceful, but if any doctrine were to elicit this kind of response, the Trinity would be it. After all, what’s at stake is nothing less than the nature of God. Or at least our understanding of the nature of God, which is a distinction often lost on the church, in this and other matters.
The spectrum of talk about the Trinity is part and parcel of how the church talks about anything: the further away we get from the language of poetry in favor of a kind of rigid and uncompromising prose, the more harm we do. The less holy we are. Yes, conversation about the Trinity has called forth some of our most abstruse offerings of language, often in the form of creeds and confessions. But it’s also inspired some of the most beautiful and poetic speech about God you’re likely to hear. Such is the tension when speaking of and out of faith.
Take Tertullian, the great North African theologian who may have actually coined the term “Trinity” (in Latin, trinitas). I’m told that he described the Trinity as a kind of plant, where God is the root going deep into the ground, the Son is the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Holy Spirit is that which brings beauty and fragrance into the world.
One of the great church mothers, Catherine of Siena, tells us that the Holy Trinity is like a dinner party to which we’ve all been invited. God is the table at which we sit and the chairs we sit upon, what’s underneath all that we’re doing. Christ is the food we eat that nourishes us and brings us together — the bread broken for us, the cup poured out for us. And the Holy Spirit, she says, is the host who’s prepared a place for us, who greets us at the door, invites us in to this divine dinner party.
The famous Russian icon of the Trinity is similar. It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre from Genesis 18 sitting around a table. The perspective of the icon and the arrangement of the angels around the table give the effect of the viewer sitting at the table with them.
But perhaps the most powerful and poetic image of the Trinity I know of is actually tucked inside a seemingly arcane theological concept that might be mistaken for the aforementioned rigid prose. The Eastern Church (which by the way has had a much easier time making sense of the Trinity than us Westerners or, more accurately, has been much more comfortable with the mystery of it all) has long described the nature of the Trinity as perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around.”
I love this image of Almighty and Everlasting God as three people dancing in perfect unity. What could we learn of a God who dances? Or even more, what could we learn if God is dance? What would it mean for all of creation, and we ourselves, to be the intended consequence of divine slide-step or tango or swing or waltz?
I read once that the rabbis used to say, to dance is an “achievement.” They said it was an achievement to struggle with your sadness or embarrassment or pride enough to “bring it into the joy.’ I love that.
And this may be the part of the doctrine of the Trinity that goes most underappreciated: that God’s deepest longing is to bring us into the joy. To invite us into the great dance of creation. To have us take a seat at the divine dinner party.
If imagination is just not your thing, then by all means scoff at the Trinity. Laugh if you must, but consider what it would mean to laugh with God and the church, not at. But if you really want to articulate the nature of the Godhead in all its glory and wonder and mystery, it’s almost always best not to say a word at all.
Simply find a rhythm, and, well, you’ll know what to do.